I’m directing a sketch show through the writing process right now and one of the performers wrote a scene with a crazy yoga teacher and a student who isn’t quite buying in. Crazy characters are fantastic for comedy, of course. The Groundlings excel at that kind of style. Consider characters from their famous alums like Melissa McCarthy, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman).
If you are confronted with a crazy person in real life, how do you behave?
Consider a scene that begins with one actor playing a grandfather who’s pulling up the carpet and eating it. How do you react?
The audience will buy one of two reactions: Call out the crazy behavior or act like it’s totally normal.
If your actual grandpa were eating carpet, you would stop him. The audience would like that scene because it’s immediately clear that one character cares for the other. Wherever the scene goes from there, we know that there’s an important relationship at stake. And, inevitably, when Grandpa starts eating the carpet again, the audience will like that. (The audience loves seeing the result of forbidden behavior.)
But let’s say your grandpa always eats carpet. In that case, you might see him ripping into the rug and say, “How’s the carpet tasting today, Grandpa? Need any salt?” That’s certainly odd, but also a scene the audience could buy. If Grandpa always does this, you wouldn’t be fazed. And by offering salt, you’re acknowledging the behavior, condoning it and helping your scene partner by heightening the scenario. Also, you still care about Grandpa in this scene.
A novice improviser would try to split the difference. Grandpa’s eating carpet, so you say, “Hey, knock it off,” but you don’t act concerned, the way you would in a real situation. Or you might try to “yes and” the situation by saying, “Grandpa, you’re eating carpet? I’m going to eat particle board.” Where does the scene go from there? There’s no relationship, just two weirdos eating weird stuff. Or, worst of all, you could ignore it entirely, leaving Grandpa to eat carpet the whole scene while you disconnect and probably rummage in the dreaded improv kitchen cabinets.
Your character has to care about something, even if it’s just themselves. If the weird behavior that starts a scene affects something your character cares about, you’re off and running. If you don’t care, the audience won’t, either.
Getting back to our Groundlings actors for a moment, consider the world of Pee-Wee Herman. Here’s a total spaz wandering around the planet and nobody calls him on being a total spaz. In fact, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he had several equally weird friends: a cowboy, a globe, a chair and a genie. Sure, Pee-Wee was weird, but his weird was normal to his friends. In “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” he ventures outside his home and into the world where literally no one stops and says, “You’re a lunatic!” That would ruin the fun.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. He exists solely to make real people uncomfortable. That movie was a blockbuster because everyone in the audience could relate to trying to deal with that maniac. The strained reactions to his antics were real, so we bought into the scenarios.
Think of a crazy character like a hot tub. If the opposing character is used to the heat, they’ll climb in and everything’s fine. If the opposing character is NOT used to the heat, they’ll jump out right away and they’ll be reluctant to go back in.
The success of a scene featuring a crazy character usually has less to do with the character and more to do with the actor playing opposite that person. Choose to buy in and support or call out the craziness. There’s no room for indecision.